On Jan. 22, Ma Keqing, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, was summoned to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila and handed a note verbale informing her that the Philippines was initiating a legal challenge to bring China before an arbitral ribunal under the terms of the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Read More
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China and the United States are competing for influence throughout Southeast Asia and Cambodia appears to be the latest battleground. In January, China stepped up its defense cooperation with Cambodia in a development that several regional analysts saw as an attempt to supplant the United States. One writer, for example, likened China’s initiative to a “tug-of-war” with the United States.
In September a major diplomatic crisis erupted between China and Japan over a group of five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks located 120 nautical miles northeast of Taiwan, 200 nautical miles southeast of Okinawa and 200 nautical miles east of China. Collectively these islets and rocks are known as the Senkaku islands in Japanese and the Diaoyutai in Chinese. Japan, China and Taiwan each claim sovereignty over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai.
Japan acquired the Senkaku Islands in 1895 after defeating China in the First Sino-Japanese War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, China transferred sovereignty over both Taiwan and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus came under U.S. control when it occupied Japan and Okinawa in 1945 at the end of World War II. In 1972 the U.S. returned Okinawa and the Senkakus to Japan. The Senkakus are presently administered as part of Okinawa prefecture.
View Senkaku Islands in a larger map
In 1969 a survey conducted under the auspices of the United Nations determined that there were potentially large oil and gas deposits in the seabed surrounding the Senkakus. According to Japanese sources, the discovery of hydrocarbons was the catalyst that reignited Chinese claims to the Diaoyutai. Both Taiwan and China claim sovereignty based on Ming Dynasty documents listing the Diaoyutai as prized possessions of the Chinese emperor.
In September 1972 China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations. Six years later both sides signed a bilateral fishing agreement and reached an understanding to set aside their dispute over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai as a matter for future generations to decide. In 2008 China and Japan agreed to jointly explore for oil in waters off the Senkakus; but that undertaking was never implemented.
On August 15, Thanh Nien newspaper reported that Vietnam would take delivery of its first Kilo-class submarine by the end of the year. Vietnam has another five Kilo submarines on order and is expected to take delivery at the rate of one submarine a year. According to Vietnam’s defense Minister, General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam will develop a modern submarine fleet in the next five to six years (2016-2017).
In the late 1980s Vietnam sought to acquire its first submarine from the Soviet Union. A crew was selected and it trained on a Project 641 diesel submarine attached to the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The program was suspended by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev out of concerns about riling China. Vietnam’s hopes to acquire submarines went into abeyance with the collapse of the USSR.
In a 1997 guns-for-rice barter, Vietnam acquired two Yugo-class mini-submarines from North Korea. These were berthed at Cam Ranh Bay where they underwent repair and overhaul. For the next 13 years analysts were uncertain about their operational status. In January 2010, Tuoi Tre newspaper dramatically revealed the existence of M96, Vietnam’s secret submarine service, with a photo of a Yugo submarine and its crew. The Yugos were used for diver related operations. According to a Western defense attaché stationed in Moscow, “The mini-sub experience provides a basic foundation for understanding submarine operations and maintenance.”
For government officials and regional analysts following the security dialogues in Phnom Penh last week (9–13 July) there was good news and bad news. The good news was that the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to the key elements of their Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. The bad news was that the ASEAN foreign ministers could not agree on the wording of the South China Sea section of a joint communiqué.
Good News: ASEAN Agrees on a Code of Conduct
In 2002, ASEAN and China failed to reach an agreement on a COC in the South China Sea. As a compromise they signed off on a nonbinding political statement that took the form of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The signatories agreed to work toward the eventual adoption of a COC.
Implementation of the DOC languished for nine years until China, in an about face, resumed discussions with ASEAN and agreed on guidelines to implement the DOC. China’s change of mind was in reaction to pressure from the international community, led by the United States, criticizing China’s assertive actions against the Philippines and Vietnam. The agreement on the DOC guidelines prompted ASEAN to move on to the next phase—drafting a COC for the South China Sea.
ASEAN has not yet released the official text of its COC. But a detailed outline provided to the author shows it to contain three parts. The first is a preamble listing agreements between ASEAN and China obligating them to settle their disputes peacefully in accordance with international law, including the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).